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Western Watersheds Project v. Schneider

United States District Court, D. Idaho

October 2, 2019

JANICE SCHNEIDER, Assistant Secretary of Interior; BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT; and U.S. FOREST SERVICE, Defendants.


          B. Lynn Winmill, U.S. District Court Judge


         The Court has before it the Government's motion to dismiss, or in the alternative to transfer, for improper venue. The motion is fully briefed and at issue. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny the motion.


         The original complaint in this case was brought by four different environmental groups challenging fifteen Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) issued in 2015 that govern land covering ten western states. The gist of plaintiffs' lawsuit was that the BLM and Forest Service artificially minimized the harms to sage grouse by segmenting their analysis into 15 sub-regions without conducting any range-wide evaluation - the agencies looked at the trees without looking at the forest, so to speak. The plaintiffs brought their claims under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).

         Early in the case, the BLM filed a motion to sever and transfer arguing that, for example, the challenge to the Utah Plan should be transferred to Utah and the challenge to the Nevada Plan should be transferred to Nevada. The Court denied the motion, reasoning that “plaintiffs made overarching claims that applied to each EIS and RMP and required a range-wide evaluation that extended beyond the boundaries of any particular court.” See Memorandum Decision (Dkt. No. 86).

         As this litigation was underway, the Trump Administration came into office and began a process to review and revise the 2015 Sage-Grouse Plans. This litigation was put on hold pending that review. In 2017 that review was completed, and as a result, WWP alleges, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed agencies to relax restrictions on oil and gas development in sage grouse habitat. The BLM responded by issuing amendments to the Sage Grouse Plans (referred to as the 2019 Amendments). Plaintiffs supplemented their complaint to challenge the BLM's 2019 Amendments, alleging that the agency - acting at the direction of the Trump Administration - again made common errors across numerous Plans, including (1) failing to take a range-wide analysis, (2) failing to evaluate climate change impacts, and (3) generally removing protections for the sage grouse.

         The Utah and Wyoming intervenors responded by filing a motion to transfer, arguing that the circumstances have changed since the Court denied the BLM's motion discussed above.[1] The intervenors argued that the interests of justice and the interests of local concerns justified transferring, for example, the Utah Plan challenges to Utah and the Wyoming Plan challenges to Wyoming. The intervenors argued that the challenges in this case are Plan-specific and will be unique to each State.

         The Court disagreed and denied their motions. See Memorandum Decision (Dkt. No. 181). The Court reasoned that their motions ignored the allegations of plaintiffs' complaint. Plaintiffs allege that the challenged Plans suffer from common failings that did not result entirely from errors of local Field Offices but rather were heavily influenced by directions from the Trump Administration and the Interior Secretary. Transferring these cases to various States would require plaintiffs to make duplicative arguments and courts to render duplicative - and perhaps conflicting - decisions. The Court did not agree with intervenors that circumstances have changed since the Court denied the Government's earlier motion to sever and transfer.

         Much of the Government's motion contains arguments identical to those raised by the Utah and Wyoming intervenors and rejected by this Court. The Court will not repeat its analysis but will simply incorporate it by reference and deny those portions of the Government's motion.

         The remaining issue is whether this Court is the proper venue for resolving plaintiffs' supplemental claims challenging the 2019 BLM Plan Amendments. The venue statute allows a plaintiff naming federal defendants to bring suit in “any judicial district in which . . . (3) the plaintiff resides if no real property is involved in the action.” See 28 U.S.C. § 1391(e)(1)(C). It is undisputed that plaintiff WWP “resides” in the District of Idaho because it is incorporated and headquartered in Idaho, so venue is proper here under subsection (C) unless “real property is involved” within the meaning of the statute.

         This Court has previously interpreted § 1391(e)(1)(C) to mean that “real property” is not “involved” in a lawsuit challenging an agency's compliance with NEPA and FLPMA. See WWP v Salazar, 2009 WL 1299626 (D.Id. May 7, 2009) (Salazar I). The Government responded in the Salazar I case by seeking reconsideration based on the then-recently issued opinion in Center for Biological Diversity v. BLM, 2009 WL 1025606 (N.D. Cal. 2009) (CBD), but the Court denied that motion as well. See Order (Dkt. No. 58 in CV-08-516-BLW). The Court later reaffirmed Salazar I in a separate case. See WWP v. Salazar, 2010 WL 375003 (D.Id. Jan. 25, 2010) (Salazar II), reconsidered on other grounds, 2011 WL 4431813 (D. Id. Sep. 22, 2011). Just two months ago, the Court reconfirmed its rulings in Salazar I & II. See WWP v. Interior Board of Land Appeals, 2019 WL 3877302 (D.Id. Aug. 16, 2019).

         The Government asks the Court to revisit its prior decisions, and offers legislative history in the form of a letter from then-Deputy Attorney General Byron White observing that “[t]he principal demand for this proposed legislation comes from those who wish to seek review of decisions relating to public lands, such as the awarding of oil and gas leases, consideration of land patent applications and the granting of grazing rights or other interests in the public domain . . . and it would be unwise to have the Secretary sued in Maine with respect to an oil and gas lease in Wyoming.” See S. Rep. No. 87-1992, at 6 (1962), as reprinted in 1962 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2784, 2789.

         It certainly would be “unwise” to set venue in a court that had nothing to do with the controversy, such as a court in Maine resolving a dispute over a Wyoming lease. That is precisely what Justice White was trying to avoid and the final version of the statute was apparently intended to accommodate his concern because its language is close to his recommendation. But his concern - and that of the statute - does not apply here ...

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